'Frontier of planetary science': NASA probe completes flyby of distant Ultima Thule

'Frontier of planetary science': NASA probe completes flyby of distant Ultima Thule

In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn't know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

"Go New Horizons!" said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. The New York Times has a nice collection of pictures taken of Ultima Thule as New Horizons approached.

From the latest image, it still remains unclear if Ultima is actually two objects that are closely orbiting one another, or a single mass.

Once it enters the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system's creation, the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

Prof Weaver added that the path is looking all clear for New Horizons, and is confident the mission will be a resounding success. It's a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now.

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it, made by the New Horizons spacecraft, on August 16, 2018.

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"We're rendezvousing with something that's a mountain draped in black velvet in nearly pitch dark conditions and we're screaming up to it ... within 2 seconds of perfection", Stern said. Scientists picked Ultima Thule with help from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The spaceship was to collect 900 images over the course of a few seconds as it shaved by at a distance of about 3,500km at a speed of 51,500km/h (32,000mph).

Scientists made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. "We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.

"Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right", Bowman said.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4-billion-mile journey toward the solar system's frigid edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

Although scientists have modeled the shape of Ultima Thule, as the time of flyby draws closer, the team had hoped the object's "light curve" would have revealed more about it. It's name is an ancient cartographer's phrase meaning it is "beyond the known world". However, the real science can't begin until the probe delivers all the data it's gathered, and that could take months. "We'll find out Tuesday".

"Nothing has happened to these things since they formed", said John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science team, at a pre-flyby briefing.

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